Pixel Heart

Tess is furious, screaming at me in those moments before the rental car goes off the road. It is on auto-drive but nonetheless I stare forward into the flickering silhouettes of the pines, my fingers knotted tight around the wheel.

The shouting reaches its crescendo a minute before the crash. “Just tell me who the fuck you are, if you’ve done something terrible, whatever, we can work through that, but tell me–” her voice is pulled hard, a voice I only hear when the office calls her with some other-time-zone banking crisis in Tokyo, Berlin, Taipei, and she answers, sharp and hollowed of tenderness.

This voice makes me tremble inside, a little boy who wants nothing more than to look down at his shoes and say sorry. I almost blurt it all out right there, the truth, imagining the lightness I’d feel. The unburdening of all these fictions I have conjured for no reason other than that I can make people believe them.

But how weak, how vulnerable that position, naked of the smokescreens and labyrinths I clothe myself in. Instead I cobble an armor of silent, simmering anger and refuse to engage, having no idea how I will talk my way out of this.

I hack into her retinal display and watch it in the corner of my eye. She riffles back through images of us stored in her cloud cache; the rush of encounters our life has been. I see flickers of weekends in one city or another, half way between where she and I must be the following Monday. We are at dinner, or in the shade of palm tree, or holding hands on a snowy evening beneath a street light, trying to grasp our relationship together against the demands of our work.

She begins to delete them, one by one, our smiles, a tableau of warmth dissolving into so much binary. Unbearable to see, I snatch and secret them into an archive, though their safety offers no protection against the threat of weeping like a child.

She scrabbles, amateurishly, into the sprawl of social media, looking for traces of my identity though she knows I have little to nothing there. I explained that absence away four years back, when we first met, saying it was protection against identity theft, necessary for my work.

“Did your parents really drown? Is that true? Is your job real?” She slashes at the undergrowth of my fictions as if she will blunder into a clearing of truth. “All this shit at work and now… I need you to be…”

Her voice almost waivers then but she wrenches it tight and suddenly she is doing something I did not expect. Something I’m not sure I can protect myself against, here on the fly. Buried in an encrypted window she logs into the bank’s employee net, bringing up a secure line to an anti-fraud application, a precursor of which I myself had a hand in testing. She is spitting my details into it, photos, dates, times, and it is trawling databases the public only dimly know exist.

I am panicking, scraping at the depths of my boxes of tricks for a way to foil her. And then the auto-drive clicks off and the wheel jerks in my hand and the car skids, thuds and we are spinning, floating, clattering into the darkness.

I wish that I could say that the lies were for a reason. That this is all some elaborate life I have had to lead out of fear of the mob or love for another woman. Anything. But there is nothing like that. There are only the games of a little boy who was nothing but a tiresome distraction from his mother’s Xanax trance of television shows. A boy who once learnt he could amuse himself by seeing what he could get other people to believe. A habit that, instead of growing out of, he grew into. And it grew into him, like a cancer, too deep to be removed.

In the hospital I sit by her bedside, feeling the pressure of tears, the urge to fucking break down and weep into the sheets. But as ever, nothing comes.

There’s a chance, I realize, that it was me, my hands that twisted the wheel and spun the car off the road. A good chance, because I had all my fake everything to lose and how often do these cars ever crash under their own control in conditions like that? If I could remember maybe I’d know if I’d hacked the system, twisted the wheel, just to stop her searching any deeper, if I could remember. And that would mean I’ve hurt her and this has gone too far, this has to stop, no more lying.

I tell myself that as soon as she wakes I’ll tell her the truth. But there is so little of me, with the lies all stripped away. No part of me that would interest her, that she would care for, that she would scream the name of and dig her nails into in the dead of night.

A doctor comes and lays a hand on my shoulder. She asks me if I have family nearby and I mutter something imaginary about an estranged brother up in the Yukon. She smiles supportively. “I’m afraid we have to run a procedure, on your partner.”

I sit upright, sweat beading on my palms. “They told me there’d be no need for surgery…”

“No, it’s a condition of the insurance, of her employer. Shang Bank has a requirement that all executive staff are scanned and uploaded on a quarterly basis and immediately in… situations like this.”

The pair who come and perform the scan are serious-looking men with white coats over their business suits. They are polite though the taller of the two watches me with a silent, predatory gaze I decline to meet. I have to leave the room though they let me watch through the glass as they place their machines around her.

I sit back in the chair and while they boot their devices I bring up my retinal and poke around on the edges of their security. This is the flip side of my habit; while I will lie for no reason, the presence of other people’s secrets troubles me like an itch. This compulsion has served me well at times, has led me to the line of work I follow, has prepared the groundwork for the stories I can tell people, most of all to Tess.

But they are a bank and the security is tight. I can only observe the general motion of their software’s functions. But when they begin the deletion of their local backup they use a shortcut protocol their analysts should have rooted out long ago, and I find I can mirror the pattern and read it off. Scan and copy until, hidden away in my implant, is Tess. The last scan they made of her, almost three months ago, back when the threads of my stories had only just begun to come unwound. I bury it beneath a mound of static, stand and leave as if this is too much for me to watch.

Tess wakes two weeks later and tells me to leave. I move out of our apartment (two suitcases, we barely live there) and am in Denver for work the same night. I call her two, three times daily but get no reply.

The stolen scan of her, hidden in my cache, provokes me like some Pandora’s Box to which I have no key. I don’t have the sort of computing needed to run a scan of that definition. It can’t be had without attracting attention from the authorities or spending beyond my means down in the recesses of the shadow web.

It takes me a week but I find what might be a solution. There’s a job–a vast, unmanned telescope array gone on the blink somewhere out in the back of beyond, British Colombia. For no known reason the thing had locked down all its transmitters and ‘crypted all its data for good measure. A couple of months of work they reckoned, coaxing its systems out of catatonia. And while the telescope was down that vast computer had nothing to do and nobody watching it. Nothing to do but bring Tess’ scan to life.

The journey up there is a minor adventure, though greater than any other I’ve had. A large plane and then a small one and another yet smaller. The university department that manages the telescope had left me a battered jeep at the airstrip. I bounced for half a day along minor roads and woodland tracks, the forest vast and dense on every side.

Leaving the town my security ‘ware noted the wash of a powerful scanner frisking the memory of my implant drive. It had the feel of a local PD, basic programming, and my ‘ware is good, palms the scanner off with some generic, citizen-going-about-his-business materials.

At the foot of the mountain where the telescope stands is a lake and beside it a low building where the staff lived before the telescope was automated. It has a terminal wired to the telescope’s computer and a wireless array I can access for miles around.

In the bedroom nearest the kitchen I make myself at home by throwing my bags down in the corner. I lie back on the bed and with a squirm of the eyeballs bring the retinals to full opacity. The web signal out here is almost dead but I can reach the wireless from the mainframe; the slumbering giant of the observatory’s computer.

They’ve called it Thoth, some academic in-joke I can’t be bothered to decode. Thoth’s voice is a deep baritone that informs me its systems are secured pending diagnostics.

I woo it with packets of code, awaken unused functions as yet untouched by whatever has infected it. And there with cunning, with sleight of binary hand, I load the copy of Tess into the observatory’s mainframe and bring her into being.

Thoth fashions the room from her memories of the scanning suite; the last place this scan of her remembers, a virtual hospital room lit with the flat glow of a fluorescent bulb. It builds this room in VR engine my paralyzed body now believes itself to be in. And there in the bed is a Tess who doesn’t yet hate me, still thinks she knows me, my past and present still as real as the words I have described them with.

She lies on her side, the hospital gown slightly apart at her shoulders. Her body is fashioned from a snapshot that Thoth digs from that part of her mind that remembers such things, the company having had no use for a physical scan to embody her within. The appearance is a close simulacrum, though it differs in subtle ways.

Her back is denuded of detail. Her real body has freckles there, constellations I have traced with my finger. But she does not remember them and so they have not made the cut. Other subtleties, a sharpness of her collar bone I do not recognize, the childhood dog bite scar just at the hairline, long-since faded to almost invisible, now stands red against the skin. I wonder what differences an observer might see in my own represented body?

I draw a breath, ready, to say what? This moment I have imagined, the undoing of all the threads of BS I’ve wasted so much energy on weaving. To start at the beginning, with those lies she has never heard, that would contradict the ones she knows. The stories the school counsellor gobbled whole; stories that bought me passage from that darkened, cigarette reeking room to a new family. Tell her of the jobs I’ve left, having failed to die of the terminal disease I’d told my colleagues of…

…and the copy of Tess rolls onto her back and looks up at me, the eyes a true copy, pure green, and I feel a twinge of something. Something about doing this is wrong. This room unreal, my body not here at all, a simulation Thoth has summoned for her, and hers falsified as well. It would sully everything, to start from here, for the foundation of this confession to be itself untrue.

And so I have Thoth stop this program and drag me back to my body. I dress in the outdoor clothes I have bought, walk the circumference of the lake, looking down into the waters at the reflection of the mountain and pondering the issue of Tess. It is early March and the world is a blandness of brown grass, cloud, clingings of snow. My ‘ware pings, as if to alert me of another scan coming down out of nowhere, but when I try to trace it it is gone, a ghost, a false reading.

It takes a month of work to conjure a truer approach. I slide into the bed beside her and count the freckles between her shoulders. She wakes and wriggles to my embrace, then tightens. “Jake?” she says.

“Shh, shh, relax, it’s OK,” I whisper in her ear.

“Jake where are we?” she asks, an edge of urgency in her voice.

“It’s OK, you were in an accident, you’ve been unconscious, but don’t worry, you’re fine now.”

“But this… this isn’t a hospital,” she says.

And it isn’t, it’s the bedroom in the staff building. Not some simulacrum, at least for the most part. What she sees is there in real time, the product of a drone that hovers on hummingbird wings, poised where her face would be, turning its cameras this way and that, mimicking the movement of her eyes according to the volition of Tess’ copy.

I do not see this, of course, I see Tess, her head turning this way and that. I see a perfect image of her, of the blanket lain over her, beamed into my retinals by Thoth, ever watching through a dozen other drones that hover invisibly around us.

It is a complex feat, but not one I have built from scratch. The military (who else) have developed this tech beyond the limits of anything I could build. They learnt that to simulate a battlefield it takes far less computing to have the field already and impose images of the battle onto it than to simulate the world entirely. So I have borrowed their work and the civilian versions of it.

I move then in the real world, everything I see is real but for Tess and the things she touches. The blanket that lies over Tess is not there, cannot be, for there is no body there to support it. But Thoth recreates it for us faithfully, replicates the weight and texture and warmth of it. Through my implants it resonates these sensations into my nerves, superimposing them over the real world my unaided senses bring me.

It is a complex game. I have agreed with Thoth that all windows will seem sealed shut and all the doors within the building will stay open. Should we try to close them Thoth will simulate this experience for us, but stay my body’s hand. It would do no good for Tess, who has no real body, to appear to open a door and for my real body to blunder into it, seeing the open doorway Thoth has simulated for us.

Thoth does not render every tiny detail, it needs only make suggestions and the brain leaps in and fills the gaps itself. I can see no difference.

But nevertheless it is complicated. In those first days, when Tess slept I watched the drones recordings of the moments we’d been together. Ran the camera feed of me talking to no one beside the feed from retinals where Tess stood looking out the kitchen window. I watched her pick up a bowl I had been eating from and place it in the sink. In the moment, I saw just as she saw. But she has no physical capacity to touch the real objects in the world. In the drone’s recording the real bowl remained where it was, on the table, though the two of us saw only empty space. And later, in the recording, I saw I knocked it from the table though Thoth had suppressed the sound of shattering, suppressed even, the crunch of the fragments beneath my feet.

It is a deception, that much I will admit, but it is truer than to fake her world in its entirety. And now the stage is set I will have no more say in how this world is than she. It is as it would be if she were here in body and in that sense at least it is true and so a better climate for confessions of the truth.

“No,” I said at last, and then the words slipped out like a breath held too long. “This isn’t the hospital. You’re nearly better now. You woke up a few times, but whenever you saw a stranger you started to panic… they wanted you away from other people, just while things stabilize.”

That feeling as I spoke, heart stuttering, waiting for the moment when she would give me that look of knowing I was lying. But this was the old version of her, from before the time when all the threads began to unravel. It trusted me so completely and I wanted so much to honor that trust, to protect her from anything that might hurt her.

And how could we begin by my telling her she isn’t real but a copy that I have stolen? There would be nothing after that, no listening. Instead I will start at the beginning, start small, rebuild these basic facts with truth until she is ready to know why I have made this place for us.

Tess hardly questions why we are here, the nature of her injury, though even I can see that the story is dubious. She never suggests any suspicion that her last memory is of the anesthetist at the hospital where the scan took place.

She seems relieved almost, to be here. A heaviness seems to have slid from her, a watchfulness which I had not noticed but see only now in its absence. She looks out onto the lake and asks if we can go for a walk.

In the month between bringing her to life in the simulation of the hospital room, and her coming awake here, in the real world, the days have warmed and lengthened. The snow melts and the forest ticks with the dripping of water. We pass a month in enjoying it, setting out in the gold light of morning, the sun raising phantoms of steam from the damp moss cloaks of boulders.

We see no one, hardly a sign of humans having passed this way in years. Only once, the silhouettes of two figures, high up on the skyline by the observatory, there for a moment and then gone.

It is good for us. I feel the hunch of my back unknot, the muscles in our bodies growing toned. In the mornings we walk or take the bicycles we have dug out from the cellar. We explore the gullies and the heights, finding caves and the ruins of old homesteads swallowed in the undergrowth. And Thoth imagines for us her every footprint in the wet earth, every cloud of her breath, the letters she writes with a fingertip in the frost on a barkless tree branch.

We come home, eat wholesome meals. We make love, not as we once did, rushed and urgent with the need of days apart, but with gentleness, care. Afterwards, through the afternoons, I work and Tess sleeps.

“I feel like I haven’t slept in a year,” she says. “All this time, at work, it’s been so horrible.” And she tells me how files have been leaked from somewhere in her department, vital files relating to fortunes that cannot bear to have their secrets exposed. Constant suspicion, late nights in the office under the scrutiny of the investigators. “It just went on, everyone watching everyone. All these cross examinations until I realized the way I was remembering things, or the way they made remember, it wasn’t… consistent, you know? Couldn’t have happened the way I thought it did. You start to wonder if maybe you had done the things they’re asking about. I remember, just before the accident, sitting at my desk, looking out through the window and wishing I could just step through it, fall into the street and for it all to be done with. I never imagined… I’m not someone who thinks like that, you know?”

We are sitting by the lake when she says it, the air still with the cold of morning, a layer of mist balanced above the water. I feel light, like air, listening to her saying that. I have rescued her, done what is right. I would have told her then, told her everything, but there is this feeling, this strange sense that she is on the brink of telling me something, something vital that I must hear before I reveal my own secrets.

The first glitch comes early in April. I have been fastidious in many things, but there is a day when the weather is setting in and we hurry out, wanting to at least make a circuit of the lake before the rain traps us indoors. I do not pay attention to the pushing of chairs back under the breakfast table. Tess does hers, which has never, in reality, been moved, but does mine as well, and as she turns to leave the kitchen I stumble across the chair which still sits in my path, cloaked by the transparency Thoth has made for it.

Thoth tries to deceive me, to feed sensations into my implant that tell me I’m standing, but it is too much, too paradoxical for my nerves to handle and the chair flickers, leaps from the place it has taken out onto the floor.

After our walk Tess sleeps and I conference with Thoth, agree how these problems might be avoided. I do not want to be shown things that Tess cannot see, it is against the spirit of what I am trying to do here. Thoth suggests a robot, some domestic model big in Korea that could arrange things when we are out. But I don’t like the thought of it, stupid as it sounds, some silent figure creeping among our things.

Instead we determine a solution, imperfect but good enough. Thoth will keep track of everything Tess touches, its real place and where it comes to rest when she has moved it. When we sleep Thoth is to take my body in its slumber and without waking it, make it rise and walk through our rooms gathering those things that she has touched but not touched and moving them, fill or empty them, dirty or clean them, so that the world in its physical form, hidden from us, is made to correspond to ours.

Spring warms, my heart opens. I tell Tess, trembling as I say it, that I would imagine living somewhere like this forever, would she? Would she imagine children one day? She smiles, closes her eyes and turns her face up into the sun. Yes, she could imagine it.

The work, thank God, will last longer than planned. I cannot, and will not imagine what I will do when it is done. The transmitter and the controls of the observatory still will not speak to Thoth, the problem seeming to have mutated in response to the controls I have tried to place on it. There will be no sudden solving of this, only a steady war of attrition.

I have not yet done what I have promised myself I would, no confession yet but then also no more lies. I have never been so long without my mouth conjuring some story, so that is something, at least.

With the lake thawed we decide to row the small boat out across it. We slide over the trembling reflection of the mountain and watch the fish nuzzle up from the depths to investigate our trailing fingers. We return to our bed and when Tess sleeps Thoth wakes me on the shore, wet through and shivering. Tess and I had carried that boat together but in the world without Tess the boat was too heavy for me alone. In that world the boat fell from the rack and lay there while my body walked alone, miming the weight of it. Thoth imagined it for us, imagined us floating out on the water while my body waded into the lake and stood there, waiting for my imagined body to float back into its proximity when it waded back onto the shore and collapsed.

I am almost hypothermic when I get back inside, having staggered and then crawled up those steps. I huddle beneath the shower, shuddering, sluicing myself in hot water. In the depths of my implanted drive there is a quiet havoc, files being opened and shifting beyond my reach, but it ceases as the shivering recedes and I crawl then into the bed.

It takes me all day to recover. I lie there as Tess cooks me imaginary soup with a smell that makes my stomach roar.

Thoth wakes me with the howl of an alarm. Tess is perched at the edge of the bed, weeping, her skin flickering with pixels.

“Did you know?” She drives that look into me and I give the game away before I can think to hide it. She twists her eyes shut, the skin trembling beneath the jump of the pixels. “Am I dead? How? How long ago? When were you going to tell me?”

This is not how it should be. I have readied myself to tell the truth, but not like this, hurried, the need pressed upon us. I pull myself upright in the bed, “No, Tess, please, let me explain…” I start to speak, thinking by instinct that I should take this misunderstanding of hers and run with it. But a look begins to form across her face already, a realization, a horror.

“You’re fucking… you’re one of the investigators, aren’t you? This whole thing… just a trick to… to what? See if I’ve been lying? Fuck you, whoever you are, fuck you!” She is screaming and it breaks my heart, the idea of her believing that, believing this place we have found is a sham, part of some other purpose.

“Thoth,” I say through the implant, “Pause program: Tess.”

There is a flicker in the room while Thoth thinks. Tess vanishes and all the reality augments Thoth has built up for me, all the traces of things Tess has done, has touched or moved, are erased.

There is garbage everywhere, a curtain pulled down, scraps of food in among the sheets. Fragments of glass lie across the floor, bloody footprints on the linoleum in the hallway. The air carries a musty, vegetable rot. A buzz and our life flickers back into place, Tess frozen there on the bed.

“Thoth what’s happened?”

Thoth’s voice stutters, “Firewall breach… third party contamination…”

I bring up the retinals and try to discover the source of the interference, but the interface between here and the observatory is a mess of gibberish commands. Tess twitches, turns to me, speaks a single syllable and freezes again.

I understand, from the readings I draw from Thoth, that I am powerless here. I will have to go up to the observatory and plug directly to the mainframe.

But there is worse; there is not the memory, even in Thoth’s vast reserves, to keep track of all our moments. Thoth must erase as he creates. There is no saved version I can bring back, shortly before this glitch occurred. I will have to fix this problem and then unpause her, face her as she now sits, furious under this wrong-headed notion I may or may not be able to dissuade her from. Or we have the scan. We can reset, go back to the first moment of her waking, the memories of these last perfect months gone from her, mine alone, a treasure I can behold only in secret.

I take the hiking bag from the hook on the wall, lace my boots and set off into the morning. I will make the decision when the time comes.

Underfoot the logging road is soft from the rain, the reflections of pines plunging into the murky tyre-rut puddles. Some trick of the light makes a shape in the reflected silhouette of the canopy, a figure, asleep, curled fetus like, but when I when I look up into the branches the image is no longer there.

A mile on I think I see her, somewhere back there, a flash of her red jacket among the trees. But of course she is not; she is still in the apartment, paused and muted, waiting for me to reset her. The flash of red is just a shape cast by a branch of rust-bright maple leaves clung on through winter.

Down in the valley a wind bends the trees all together and in that creaking a whisper, almost. “Don’t you dare delete me, don’t you dare try this again, you fucking corporate slug.”

“It’s me, Tess, please!” I shout it into the wind.

“Then why…” but it is gone, swallowed in the rush of leaves.

My key to the control room turns smoothly in the lock, though my hand is trembling, having made no decision yet and knowing the time is near.

I begin the work, finding that, instead of fixing the problem in the mainframe these past months, I have allowed the problem to grow worse, teased at systems until the lockout spread to them also.

After an hour I find my way in, greyed out menu options thickening into bold when the wind gusts in. In the doorway stand two figures, silhouetted against the light.

“I think we’ll take it from here, Mr. Whoever-the-fuck-you-are,” one of them says and I know I recognise that voice as the darts of the Taser punch through my jacket and clench my body rigid.

I wake bound, in darkness, in silence, shaken roughly till the haze clears. Images begin to flicker across my retinals, a separate stream to each eye and a voice, distorted and robotic commands me to watch.

They are images of a leaner, younger me, images I have no recollection of: Me in some military uniform. Stills from a security camera of me in the lobby of some corporate building reading a document printed in Sinhalese. A mugshot of me with my face beaten and swollen.

“State your name,” the voice commands.

“Jake Durse,” I say through a throat cracked with thirst. They hit me with the electric again, worse this time than the Taser, sharper and with no escape into blackness. More images, flickering stop and start; me somewhere in the desert shaking hands with a man in a suit and shades, the towers of a wind farm lining the horizon. A scan of some ID card with my face on and writing in a language I don’t know. I wonder what this is, if these images have been doctored as some means of making me question myself, some aid to interrogation. And so it goes on, images, the command to state my name and the shock that follows whatever answer I give.

“We’re going to ask you some questions. We’ve made a scan of you and it will be undergoing the same interrogation. If the information the two of you give does not correlate the consequences will be severe. Do you understand?”

I mumble answers to their questions, my lips all numb. I tell them everything, all the things I tried and failed to tell Tess. The release I once thought such a confession would bring does not come and they do not believe me or do not care and the shocks keep coming.

They want to know what Tess told me, what secrets she gave away and who I was selling them to, but I have nothing that satisfies them. I have no sense of time, no sense if I have slept and dreamt for the dream is only the flicker of images, the voice and the pain.

But after hours, days, weeks it stops. They pull the mask away from my face but still there is only darkness and a light in my face that the shapes of men move behind. My head lolls to my chest, my body too weak to hold it up.

“He doesn’t know,” says a voice I know I recognize, the man from the hospital who ran the scan on Tess, the man I stole her from.

“Increase the voltage, that fucker knows,” says the machine voice.

“The resonance image reads clear. Whoever’s asset he is, they’ve done the number on him. He might have some liminal awareness of the goals they’ve set him but he’s no idea who he or they are. This Jake Durse personality is built from the ground up, it’s all he knows. He’s more like a bug, a listening device than an agent. Whoever this body originally belonged to–”

“Let me take a look, link me in, I’ll find who’s buried in there if I have to dig it out with a spoon.”

“It might not be wise, there’s a strong likelihood of countermeasures.”

“I don’t think this little fish is going to put up much of a fight, are you?”

I feel a rough hand reach under my chin and lift my face into the light, a palm slap at my cheek. “Don’t remember? Nothing? Just good old Jake Durse the liar. No friends, no family because he’s lied them all away, doesn’t seem a bit fishy to you, little fish?”

He lets my head drop and something winks in my retinal, something beyond a scan, a sense of other thoughts pushing down into my own. I try to hold it back but it oozes down like the wash of some narcotic. I feel him groping among my memories, between implant and grey matter.

“There. There. There it is,” the voice says with the weird, triumphant bark of a laugh distorted. A memory, one I do not know, flickers up through my thoughts and as it surfaces I feel a small part of myself collapse into static. He digs, deeper and deeper, dislodging one unknown episode after another and I haven’t the strength to fight.

I should be afraid, should be outraged that this me I know is a fake, an imagined personality cooked up as a sleeper agent, a somnambulist. I should hate whatever mafia or government agency brought this mind to life just to wheedle some bank’s secrets out of Tess. But really it seems right, only fair given the way I imagine I have lived. There is even a touch of admiration in my thoughts; what perfect cover a liar like me would be, his past so enmeshed in smoke and mirrors its absence is impossible to detect.

I give in, I let my guard down, let his implant burrow down through mine. But as he digs and my thoughts fade into static, I creep, with utter stealth, down into his archives, unearth the copy of me that they have made and steal it. This scan they made when they first dragged me in. It hasn’t seen these images, doesn’t know they are saying about another mind buried deep in my head.

I wrap the scan carefully and glide it into my inquisitor’s inner drive. He will never know that it is there. But like a message in a bottle, cast out into an unforgiving ocean, it will be swept up. As soon as he connects it will slip free, out onto the web, knowing it is looking for Tess. Not the copy of her that I am sure they have imprisoned somewhere, but the Tess who sits in the office, somewhere in Seattle, staring out from the glass.

And when it arrives there is not only this scan, but the program I wrote with Thoth, the program that allows us to exist, shared, out there at the foot of the mountain, and the program the interrogators have used to delve into my secrets. It will be there for her, to see every secret, every fiction I conjured for nothing, and if she wishes, she can bring me back to life, out there, in the forest, at the foot of the mountain.

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